When Fred J. Johnston started collecting 18th- and early 19th-century furnishings and decorative arts for the eight-room Federal-style house that he first rescued from oblivion in 1937, no one – least of all he – could ever have dreamed that the place on the corner of Wall and Main Streets in Uptown Kingston would end up being preserved as a Museum named in Johnston’s honor. Nor could anyone anticipate that the man himself would end up having the effect he did, pushing beyond a simple start as an antiques dealer to becoming not only one of the world’s great champions of early American design, but a great friend and mentor to First Lady Jackie Kennedy to boot.
“His shop was a treasure-trove visited by curators, collectors and dealers,” noted auctioneer Ron Bourgeault said of the local legend’s legacy before a sale of some of his last pieces a decade ago in New Hampshire. “Fred sold to major museums and collectors, and had a close association with Henry Francis du Pont.”
Johnston was born poor, and stopped his education after tenth grade to take a job in the Fessenden Shirt factory, where he later said that he spent hours dreaming of someday becoming an antiques dealer surrounded by beautiful pieces from the past. At first, he used his family’s garage as a showroom for what he could afford to collect from others’ junk sales. Eventually, he opened a basement shop, and then found work as a draftsman for noted Kingston architect Myron Teller, then designing some of the city’s finest restoration houses to this day. Teller introduced Johnston to du Pont, then searching out period furnishings and architectural parts for his new Winterthur Museum in his family mansion outside Wilmington, Delaware. Du Pont made him a consultant, which led him to more introductions – and eventually the Kennedy, for whom he helped complete a redo at the White House.
Among Johnston’s greater achievements, beyond his championing of Federalist design and restoration, was his purchase and use of the house that now bears his name in Kingston. Built circa 1812 as the residence of New York State senator John Sudam, who hosted the likes of Washington Irving and Martin Van Buren, the place was sold in the 1880s to another family, who decided to sell it for demolition and site use as a gas station in the late 1930s. As if on a campaign, Johnston persuaded a local bank to lend him the money to buy the house and set about the place’s restoration as not only the grand home that it was intended to be, but also a showcase that served his private antiques business’ purposes.
Throughout his life, Johnston would decorate his eight rooms for maximum sales effect, and welcomed some of the great classic trendsetters of his day to Kingston as a result. It’s a business model that still has legs. Furthermore, Johnston’s push toward preservation of our nation’s past ended up aiding the greater push toward landscape preservation that characterized the Johnson years in the mid-1960s, as well as the eventual naming of his Uptown Kingston neighborhood as a national treasure: the Stockade District, as it’s now known.
When he died in 1993, Johnston handed stewardship of his house to the Friends of Historic Kingston, who have since have preserved it as a Museum in his honor. The place fairly breathes old-style elegance: as much a testament to later, mid-20th-century patrician tastes as the actual Federalist period Johnston’s with which allegiances stayed. One gets a sense of measured conversations and subtle salesmanship, as well as the reasons why duPont took to calling his protégé’s home “a small Winterthur on the Hudson.”
Guided tours of the Fred J. Johnston House are offered May through October on Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. or by appointment. Even the esteemed travel site Fodor’s notes this being one of the great undiscovered museum treasures of the Hudson Valley, if not the entire nation.
The docents are knowledgeable and of a character with the place. Many knew Johnston in his later years. All are proud of this home’s place in their city and county’s history, and of its continued presence as a cultural beacon.
While visiting, don’t forget to check out the Friends of Historic Kingston’s fine museum space, adjacent to Johnston’s house. For further information call (845) 339-0720 or visit www.fohk.org.